The North Face called out for ‘virtue signaling’

Discussion
Photo: @Put_Jeroen via Twenty20
Dec 14, 2020
Tom Ryan

The North Face is being accused of being hypocritical for refusing a jacket order from a Texas-based oil and gas company because the brand’s business significantly relies on fossil fuels.

The incident gained attention because Adam Anderson, CEO of the Houston-based Innovex Downhole Solutions, penned an open letter on LinkedIn to Steve Rendle, CEO of VF Corp., The North Face’s parent, that has gone viral among the oil and gas industry’s supporters.

Innovex had intended to gift The North Face jackets, customized with the Innovex logo, to employees as Christmas gifts. Mr. Anderson said the company was informed by The North Face that it doesn’t want to support the oil and gas industry, in the same way they don’t want to be associated with alcohol, tobacco and adult entertainment businesses.

“They told us we did not meet their brand standards,” Mr. Anderson told CBS7 in Odessa, TX. “We were separately informed that what that really meant is was that we were an oil and gas company.”

In his open letter, he argued that oil and gas has enabled a quality of life “unfathomable only a century ago” and insisted climate change activists are over-estimating the threat of hydrocarbons. He called The North Face’s decision not to sell to Innovex “ironic” and “counterproductive virtue signaling” because The North Face jackets are made from petroleum products, and activities such as ski and canoeing, promoted by The North Face, often require travel supported by fossil fuels.

The North Face didn’t respond directly to the case, but in a statement to the Financial Times said it “thoroughly investigates product requests to ensure they align closely with our goals and commitments surrounding sustainability and environmental protection.”

“Support the preservation of the outdoors” has long been part of The North Face’s mission statement, and the brand has been more assertive in recent years in taking actions against climate change.

On VF’s second quarter call in mid-October, Mr. Rendle noted that over two-thirds of Millennials and Gen-Zers have changed their purchasing habits due to climate change. He added that VF’s overall commitment to combating climate change is the backbone of its “purpose-led positioning.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is The North Face is being hypocritical or guilty of “green washing” in declining to fill an order from an oil and gas enterprise? For a brand such as The North Face, is taking such stances any more or less important than five or ten years ago?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Sadly this dilutes the conversation that is happening in business right now about sustainability. It is an important conversation that isn’t helped by a publicity stunt."
"It’s no surprise this program has become bureaucratic rather than enlightened."
"It’s one thing to drive a narrative around environmental consciousness and sustainability and another thing to actually execute against those commitments."

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22 Comments on "The North Face called out for ‘virtue signaling’"


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Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Like any company, The North Face is entitled to determine which businesses it deals and associates with. However given that The North Face’s business relies on oil – at many points from materials to manufacturing to distribution – it is somewhat hypocritical!

Jeff Weidauer
BrainTrust

Unless The North Face can prove that its entire supply chain is carbon neutral and doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, this is little more than a publicity stunt. But since we’re talking about it, the stunt is working.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

I have mixed feeling about this. Yes, it’s important to uphold your core brand beliefs but this feels discriminatory. The article states that The North Face jackets are made from petroleum products, and surely the people who work for The North Face drive cars and purchase other oil industry related products.

I also wonder about the comment that The North Face “thoroughly investigate product requests to ensure they align closely with our goals and commitments surrounding sustainability and environmental protection.” Does the company investigate every order that comes across its website? I can understand vetting outlets that sell The North Face garments, but vetting consumers seems a bit much.

Bethany Allee
BrainTrust

“We reserve the right to refuse service.” End of story.

Oliver Guy
BrainTrust

Wow. This is absolutely astonishing. Given that every product The North Face sells can trace its supply chain back oil I personally find this hugely hypocritical.

Not all consumers may realize that this is the case and those that do not may think this is a good move from The North Face and in their eyes increase their perception of the brand image. It feels to me like there are many cases like this where someone “makes a stand” but if you were to scratch below the surface, finding evidence of hypocrisy — whether they realize it or not — is very easy to do.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

Sadly this dilutes the conversation that is happening in business right now about sustainability. It is an important conversation that isn’t helped by a publicity stunt. A blanket ban on all oil producers, when your company is reliant on fossil fuels, is absolutely “green washing.”

Mark Price
BrainTrust

The strategy of addressing climate change and making decisions supporting that strategy seems a wise one, especially in these days when Millennials and Gen Z feel so strongly about the issue. In addition to positioning, climate change is real, and we need more companies making such a commitment.

At the same time, refusing an order based on the industry seems a little bit “one size fits all.” I do not know what Innnovex is doing in terms of greenhouse gas management, but such considerations should be taken into account in a well-balanced decision process.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

This move by The North face is a drop in an ocean of challenges facing the world as we combat climate change. While I applaud the intent and the message, I suspect the blowback criticisms of “greenwashing” and “hypocrisy” will endure far longer than the message intended by the action itself.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

Maybe after I get my jaw off the floor I can make a comment.

Raj B. Shroff
BrainTrust

I can see both sides of this one. While they might be reliant upon fossil fuels to run their business, they aspire to become fully sustainable and this is an effort to take a stance, it has to start somewhere. While it would been easy enough for The North Face to fulfill the Innovex order, Mr. Anderson can just as easily order from another brand and move on.

I don’t necessarily agree with the decision but must respect it, these are complex issues too difficult to resolve by trading headlines. But there is no debate when no one takes a stand, even if we don’t agree.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

Hypocritical is the word – if you don’t want to be associated with that industry (and I believe that’s your prerogative), don’t make your jackets from petroleum products – make them from something sustainable.

Joel Rubinson
BrainTrust

It will be interesting to see the sales effects as these hollow gestures often have blowback. Goya said their sales increased 1,000 percent after AOC called them out for their President supporting “the wrong candidate.” The president of Goya intends (maybe jokingly) to make AOC employee of the month! Seriously, I think consumers can get sick of being lectured to by celebrities (whose job is diversion) and companies (whose job it is to makes stuff that serves a specific purpose).

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
BrainTrust

Wow! If the jackets rely upon petroleum, the decision to refuse an order intended for an oil and gas company seems problematic. If the reason had not been given and the letter stood on its own the contradiction would not have been obvious. Does that make it better? Probably not, but it would make the story less newsworthy.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Of course anyone can refuse an order as long as that refusal is not based on discriminatory practices banned under federal law BUT The North Face is guilty of trying to have its organic cake and share it with the poor too. While I’m no fan of the fossil fuel industry, Anderson does have a point.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust
4 months 19 hours ago

Yes. They are being hypocritical. How much of their product is made from oil and gas? Uhm, a lot.

We should remember that the leader who established The North Face’s commitment is also no longer with the company — so it’s no surprise this program has become bureaucratic rather than enlightened.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust
The polyester fabric used in outerwear jackets is a synthetic fabric created from petroleum. The nylon fabric used in windbreakers is created by the carbon-based chemicals found in coal and petroleum. A quick search this morning of TheNorthFace.com website found both petroleum-based fabrications listed under The North Face product “details.” It is counterproductive and mean-spirited to punish the 9.8 million people who earn their livelihood in the U.S. oil and gas industry. The very same oil and gas workers whose output enables manufacturers like The North Face to design and build products, earning annual revenue of $2 billion dollars a year. The North Face has knowingly capitalized upon the oil and gas industry to build their company. Yet oil and gas workers are NOT allowed to be given a The North Face jacket for Christmas by their company? Instead, these workers are marginalized under the guise of hypocritic righteousness. Or? Upon further investigation, many of The North Face products are “imported.” Meaning as Mr. Anderson told CBS7 in Odessa, TX “They told us we did… Read more »
John Hyman
Guest
4 months 19 hours ago

Talk about bad PR. However noble The North Face thought they were being, the attention this is getting only highlights the company’s dependency on the oil and gas industry The North Face chose to discriminate against. Why not take the order and insert a card in each jacket pocket, telling the recipient you’ve planted a tree on their behalf, then go and plant a few hundred trees?

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

It’s one thing to drive a narrative around environmental consciousness and sustainability and another thing to actually execute against those commitments. Most retailers and other operators have set realistic expectations on carbon neutrality as a long-term initiative that extends well into 2030 and beyond.

Until retail operations no longer depend on a fossil fuel-powered supply chain, companies as The North Face and others should be open and transparent on their plans.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

One could of course argue the best way to appreciate the wilderness is leave it alone, so they’re aiding and abetting destruction by offering outdoor gear. A stretch? You bet! But such are the risks when you enter the slippery slope of mixing business with public policy. (The “alcohol industry” part I find perplexing for this particular company: would they not do business with a small craft brewer? Why?) I support their right to make such decisions, but I stop short of endorsing them.

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

Too often the mission, vision, and values of the PR department are far different than what’s actually happening inside a company. The North Face can of course refuse business with anyone. Far more powerful though to go to work on actually embodying that mission to “support the preservation of the outdoors” throughout the company.

dave hochman
Guest
3 months 30 days ago

The North Face 200 stores get their inventory deliveries by horse-drawn carriages?

David Adelman
BrainTrust

I applaud any corporation that steers in the direction of sustainability. However, handpicking its customers bases on its relationship to fossil fuel production goes too far.

If The North Face wished to promote its branding efforts on being environmentally friendly, perhaps they should focus on developing their own products. By calling out Innovex, I feel that The North Face is blaming others for climate change instead of focusing on their own back yard.

To me, this is merely a publicity stunt on behalf of The North Face and a bad public relations call to boot. After all, many of these fossil fuel-related companies are still needed today until we can reach full sustainability with alternative clean power.

Innovex provides technology for the oil and gas industry. Keeping them safe and warm should be The North Faces’ number one priority. Who’s next, General Motors?

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Sadly this dilutes the conversation that is happening in business right now about sustainability. It is an important conversation that isn’t helped by a publicity stunt."
"It’s no surprise this program has become bureaucratic rather than enlightened."
"It’s one thing to drive a narrative around environmental consciousness and sustainability and another thing to actually execute against those commitments."

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